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This Rough Magic: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:58 EDT



    The woman didn't stop screaming. She'd gone beyond the edge of fear and into raw hysteria.

    None of the three people in the room appeared to even notice, any more than slaughterhouse workers might notice a bellowing steer. Jagiellon simply continued to whet the cleaver.

    Caesare Aldanto stood like a blond puppet that someone had propped against a wall. The position his arms were in was not quite natural and would have caused any normal man to alter it before more than a moment had passed. Aldanto stood as still as a log. His empty blue eyes stared unblinking at the altar. The shaman simply continued to rub the drum-skin, and walk in a widdershins circle, producing a low murmur of sound that seemed to slice through the screaming.

    The cut, when it came, did not stop the screaming. That brutal chop was not intended to. This rite derived much of its power from the suffering of the victim. The quodba drum now was a fluttering, weakening, fast heartbeat, perfectly matching that of the woman's. In the old face, the shaman's eyes burned with a fierce intensity. Sweat dripped from his forehead although the room was cold. Jagiellon showed no such signs of strain.

    Neither did Caesare, who had come forward now to kneel, holding the stone-cut bowl into which the woman's femoral artery pumped.

    Jagiellon scryed for his foes in a dark magic built on blood, pain, and defilement.

    There was a price, a terrible price for this clear vision, and not just from the victim. But the Black Brain did not care. That part of Jagiellon was long dead anyway. And this was no new ritual being enacted for the first time.

    In the blood that now pumped feebly into the bowl, Jagiellon saw Eneko Lopez, and a band of companions. Saw the canals of Venice, and a canal boat with what could only be a bridal couple. Abruptly that opaqued. Only a Leonine winged shadow remained.

    The blood bowl cleared showing a new vision. Eneko Lopez again, face uplifted, at peace, standing on the place which is called Golgotha.

    There was a high, thin, sound that pierced the brain like a white-hot needle.

    The bowl shattered. Blood erupted out of it, as if something had exploded within the depths of the bowl, splattering everything and everyone within the magic circle.

    The woman's screams, which had grown weaker and weaker, were stilled. Cut off abruptly.

    Silence, heavy and chill, hung over the scene for a moment. No one moved.

    And then the shaman coughed, breaking the stasis.

    Neither Caesare nor Jagiellon appeared concerned about being showered in fresh blood, but something had plainly affected them. There were sweat beads on both foreheads, mingling with the splattered blood. Caesare's eyes were wild and mad, not dead as they had been moments before.

    "Very powerful place. Very powerful man," grunted the shaman, fastidiously cleaning his drum.

    "I know where he is going," growled Jagiellon. "The forces of light marshal against us. A Pilgrimage. And he intends to go via Venice. Somehow this ties with the wedding of the other one. Marco Valdosta. That joining must be stopped. Or at least I must stop Lopez reaching the marshes where the Lion holds sway."

    The shaman nodded and rubbed his shoulder, wincing as he did so, as if the shoulder was deeply bruised. "Lion is very strong. Even if the young one is still unskilled, he is strong."

    "I do not like failure. You will keep watch around the Lion's borderland." Jagiellon cleaned the cleaver on the victim's hair. "We will consult with Count Mindaug. He has been studying the magics of the West. He thinks I am unaware of this. Maybe he will know of some trap we can set."

    The shaman nodded, and the Count was sent for, as servants cleared the mess away, moving with swift and fearful silence. As well they might: any one of them might be next, if they drew attention to themselves. Until today, the dead woman had been a chambermaid.



    The Count did indeed have an answer. A stray fact plucked out of a grimoire from the Ravenna region, from the southern margin of the sequence of lagoons and floodlands which had once stretched all the way from there to Grado in the north. Just off the southern margin of the ancient marshlands lay a grove of oak trees. The local people would go nowhere near the place. Local legend said a terrible rite had raised something there, something so evil that everyone for miles around found a reason to avoid the spot. It was a lonely and not very fertile area anyway, full of mosquitoes and malarial fevers. It lay not far from the causeway that led to Ravenna, and then onwards along the coast towards Venice.

    "I will open the way," said Jagiellon. "Take a form to travel on land. See what, if anything, lies in this place."

    The shaman nodded and stripped off his jacket with a tinkling of bass bells. The old body that lay underneath the leather was also tattooed. And considering the age of that lined face, the shaman's body was in remarkably good shape. Scrawny yes; but sinewy tough under the tattoos.

    The old man blurred into a feral-looking dog with yellow mangy fur, and yellow eyes, and yellower teeth. The dog slipped into the tunnel that Jagiellon had made.



    Some hours later the shaman returned. "Some old beast of kaos make nest there. There are old magics which let it survive. It is very strong but nearly mindless. It exists just to feed, Master."

    Jagiellon's cold eyes seemed to glow. "Ideal."

    "It cannot leave that place, master. It would die."

    "No matter," said Jagiellon. "We will lead the priest and his companions to the beast, before they can reach the marshes. If it fails to kill them, it may at least drive them back. I want him away from Venice, and Marco Valdosta. There is something about that meeting that I do not like the feel of. Your birds will continue to watch and follow when Lopez moves."



    First babies, the wise old midwives all said, were hard. Hard on the mother, hard on themselves. Issie evidently agreed with the wise old midwives of canalside, for the closer came the day that Maria was due, the more horrifying became the tales the old woman dragged out of her memory. Tales of birth-struggles that lasted for a week; of every possible complication; of girls that died and babies that died; of both that died together. And she had the unmitigated gall to bring in all the other foresters' wives to regale Maria with still more tales of birth-horrors, until Maria wondered why so many of them had gone through the ordeal not once, but six or eight times.

    Maria had cause to thank all the saints together that Umberto was never around to listen to these stories, or if he was around when Issie began one of her tales, he was so used to ignoring her that he really didn't hear what she was saying.

    As for Maria—well, Issie had been one of the people who had tried to frighten her with stories of ferocious wild beasts in the forest. The wild beasts had been no more ferocious than the occasional hare or deer, and by this time, Maria was disinclined to believe any of Issie's tales.

    That didn't mean she wasn't prepared for a hard go; but her own mother had given birth and gone out to deliver a load the next day. Maria knew that she came of tough stock. She wasn't expecting much trouble, really.

    She still wasn't expecting much trouble when the first pangs started, and the water broke—though that was a shock—and Issie chased Umberto out.

    But then the real pains began. And after the first hour, Maria was vowing—between groans—that the next man who touched her with sex on his mind was going to draw back a bloody stump.

    After the third hour, she knew that it wasn't going to be the stump of his hand.

    After the fifth hour, when the pains were continuous, wave after wave after wave, and her throat was hoarse, she couldn't think of anything but the pain.

    There were women milling about everywhere, praying out loud—what were they doing there? She hadn't asked them to come! The air was hot and stifling, her hair and bedgown were absolutely plastered to her with sweat, and someone was burning some vile herb in the fireplace. And all she could do was bite on the rope they'd given her, and tear at the bedclothes and it went on and on and on—

    And that was when she swept into the room.

    She was a tall shape in a dark, draped dress, and all the praying women fell silent as she raked the room with eyes that gleamed in the firelight.

    "Out," she said. And the women, the horrible, useless women, fled before her like chickens before a falcon, cackling in panic.

    She flung the windows wide, threw something on the fire that chased the stink out with the scent of fir and rosemary, and came to the side of the bed.

    She leaned over Maria, and the silver pentacle gleaming at her throat told Maria everything she needed to know.

    "Strega," she gasped. But in recognition, not condemnation. After all, none of those women and all of their calling on saints and angels had helped her.

    "Exactly so." The woman smiled, and placed a hand on Maria's forehead; then, sketched a sign in the air and murmured some words.

    Suddenly, Maria was... there, but not there. Detached from her body and all the pain and the mess. Floating within her own head, dreamily watching, as the Strega helped her out of the bed and got her to walk, then rest, then walk again, a little. She was there, but she did not care, except in the most detached possible way. Her body strained and hurt, but she did not.

    Issie's friends all huddled fearfully at the door, and the Strega cast them glances of contempt from time to time, but said nothing. "I should have come to you before," she murmured in Maria's ear, "But I did not know your time was near. Did you think that we would leave one who was a friend to us alone with a flock of chattering monkeys in her time? No."

    Then she made Maria squat on a peculiar stool, and there was a moment when Maria was back in herself, fully, and shouting, and then the baby dropped into the woman's hands in three, hard heaves.

    Maria went back into the dreamy state, and the woman got her into bed again and put her little girl in her arms, and with an imperious gesture, allowed the silly chickens back in again. And they cleaned the room, and Maria, and made everything pretty so that poor Umberto would not be horrified, and she stayed awake only long enough to look into her daughter's eyes and fall in love—and smile vaguely at her husband in reassurance when he came in.

    The last thing she saw was the Strega woman, whose name she never learned, sketching a sign of blessing in the air and leaving as mysteriously as she had come.



    In the darkness, the cliffs loomed dark and threatening. The air was still cold, the wind blowing from Albania. Here, in the craggy folds of the mountains, winter still held firm. And threading her way through the darkness came a woman. She disappeared into the cliff. A little later a second woman came threading her way along the narrow path. Later a third. And then, two more. Deep within the caves the chanting began.

    Georgio Steplakis was a hill shepherd. He had thirty sheep, and twenty-two goats, and a hut in the hills. He could hear the chanting. He had absolutely no inclination to leave his pallet. Rumor among the shepherds was that the women shed all their clothes for the dancing in the glades.

    Georgio had reason to know the truth of this story. He'd been curious enough, and not superstitious enough, to try for a closer look when he was younger. You could be really stupid when you were sixteen or so. He hadn't believed in the naiads either. Well, he'd learned. The rite was as old these hills and before people had chanted and danced, the non-humans had.

    And it was a women thing. Men who intruded would regret it. Georgio sighed in remembrance. Sometimes it was worth doing something you knew you would regret. She had been very beautiful.



    Her hair was silvered and as fine as the finest silken threads. If she'd been standing, the tresses would have reached down to her knees. She lay in the glade, naked but for that hair. Her skin was very, very white, as white as almond-milk. It was also very, very old. The breasts were wrinkled and empty. They sprawled sideways across her chest. The chest did not move. Her eyes, wide open and sightless, stared at the sky. Half of a peeled almond was still clutched in her wrinkled hand.

    When the women who had come to tend the altar found her thus, a low moan went up. There was sadness. And there was fear.

    Who would take the half-almond from the worn stone altar when the winter came?

    The cold lord must have his bride. There would be no fertility without it.

    They buried her with honor and according to the ancient tradition, in a fetal position, half-almond still in the old hand. She was buried with the others, beneath the dancing glade.

    Once the glade had been much lower than it was now, and the grass had grown less green.

    Over the spot she was buried the grass would grow greener. The earth here lay many cubits deep. And it had all come from the same source. Many, many burials over long years.

    Many brides.

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